Bernstein’s Candide for the 21st century

From left: Paula Sides as Cunegonde, Lea Shaw as Paquette, Dan Shelvey as Maximillian and William Morgan as Candide in Scottish Opera's new production - JAMES GLOSSOP

From left: Paula Sides as Cunegonde, Lea Shaw as Paquette, Dan Shelvey as Maximillian and William Morgan as Candide in Scottish Opera’s new production – JAMES GLOSSOP

Scottish Opera’s Live at No 40 mini-festival started last year as an al fresco response to the pandemic. Now that the threat from Covid has thankfully subsided, it has moved inside, to a massive, fully covered, tent-style auditorium.

The 2022 program opens with Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 opera film of Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide. Directed by Jack Furness – whose magnificent production of Dvorak’s Rusalka has been the toast of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival – it’s a brilliantly audacious production.

Unlike last year – when the orchestra of David McVicar’s wonderful Falstaff had to be hidden away from the elements inside the studio building, with playing amplified electronically – the musicians can now perform in the auditorium itself. This makes a huge difference.

Bernstein’s play is performed in promenade, with the cast and a large community choir performing in close proximity to the audience. From the outset – when the Westphalian castle where we meet the optimistic young Candide is transformed into a reality TV house, à la Big Brother – it’s clear that Furness has brought Voltaire’s tale well into the 21st century. Cunegonde (the baron’s beautiful daughter) is a fashion model with millions of followers on social media, while Dr Pangloss (the great teacher of optimism) is a flamboyantly dressed American populist philosopher with a rock star persona.

As Candide is expelled from Westphalia – as a failed Big Brother contestant – the strolling audience (seated tickets available) are surprised by the chorus. The 80-strong group of community singers (made up of asylum seekers, refugees and permanent residents of Glasgow) appear in our midst – like one of those wonderful flash mobs that suddenly entertain an unsuspecting audience in a train station or town square.

Susan Bullock (centre) as The Old Lady in Candide - JAMES GLOSSOP

Susan Bullock (centre) as The Old Lady in Candide – JAMES GLOSSOP

Our hero’s picaresque journey around the world – where he irrefutably learns that Panglossian optimism is bunkum – takes him through warfare, state oppression, maritime disaster, natural disasters and all manner of human weakness (not least sexual and economic). The action – often couched in hilariously decadent terms – explodes from suddenly exposed shipping containers and trucks.

In Argentina, the lascivious and macho governor of Buenos Aires pursues his lust for Cunegonde’s cross-dressing brother Maximilian, mistaking him for a man. When we get to Uruguay (the first country in the world to legalize cannabis), we find that Montevideo is filled with marijuana plants.

With universally superb performances – not least from William Morgan (Candide), Paula Sides (Cunegonde) and Ronald Samm (Pangloss) – this is a wonderfully confident and colorful production. The orchestra, under the baton of Stuart Stratford, rises to the occasion with all the exuberance that the grand score demands.

In the extraordinary conclusion – where the biggest cheer from the audience comes when Boris Johnson’s severed head is paraded on a stick – performers sing from stages throughout the vast auditorium in a brilliant example of 360-degree opera. Deliciously witty and audacious, this is Candide delivered with a chutzpah that Bernstein would surely have approved of.

Until 20 August. Tickets: 0141 248 4567; scottishopera.org.uk

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